Viking, sword, shieldmaiden

Hervor, Viking Princess

A Viking warrior princess? Yes, Long before Grace O’Malley sailed the seven seas and possibly even before Xena wielded her chakram in the Mediterranean, there was Hervor.

Hervor is mentioned in a set of epic poems from Iceland called the Edda, which tells stories of the Nordic gods and their adventures with men, giants, trolls, ghouls, and the like. As Homer’s Odyssey is the basis of our understanding of Greek mythology, so the Edda informs our understanding of Norse mythology.

Amalia Materna as Brunnhilde, Bayreuth 1876
Amalia Materna as Brünnhilde, Bayreuth 1876

Hervor is one of only a few women mentioned in the Edda, which is significant by itself. Most famous of the Eddic heroines, of course, is Brynhildr, or Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie immortalized in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who (tragically, of course) falls in love with Siegfried.

Fun fact: J.R.R. Tolkien was a scholar of Eddic poetry, and he based many of the characters and stories from Lord of the Rings on the Eddic mythos…and his character of Éowyn was loosely based on Hervor.

However, this story is not about Brynhildr, nor is this story about Eowyn. This story is about Hervor.

Eowyn, Nazgul, sword
“Eowyn and the Nazgul” by Erin Kelso

(Also, a point of clarification: there are three different women named Hervor mentioned in the Edda. The one I am focusing on is Hervor, daughter of Angantýr, the first of her name. Her story appears in the Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, or The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek)

Hervor’s father, Angantýr, had died before she was born, and she was raised in the household of her mother’s father, a jarl named Bjarmar. As the granddaughter of a chieftain, she was expected to learn embroidery and comport herself like a lady, but she was more likely to study swordfighting than dancing.

Now, Bjarmar never told Hervor much about her father, because Angantýr had been the owner of a magical sword named Tyrfing, which was forged by dwarves. Everybody knows that when you force a dwarf to make a magical weapon for you, chances are that dwarf is going to curse it…and Tyrfing was no exception.

Viking, sword
King Svafrlami secures the sword Tyrfing. Etching by Lorenz Frølich – Rydberg, Viktor. 1906. Teutonic Mythology Vol. III. Facing page 1003.

Basically, Tyrfing was a sword that made the person wielding it invincible in battle. HOWEVER, once unsheathed, it had to be sheathed again only in warm human blood, and for some reason, everyone had to pull it out and admire it, causing someone else in the room to lose their life. Needless to say, it was a difficult weapon to use safely and responsibly. Bjarmar knew that Angantýr had died with all his brothers in a massive battle, in which Tyrfing had been responsible for the deaths of everyone involved, so he understandably didn’t want headstrong Hervor running off and getting involved with cursed swords.

However, despite Bjarmar’s efforts, Hervor found out about her father and Tyrfing, so she ran away from home to become a pirate (er, Viking), in the hopes that she could find the island where her father (and Tyrfing) had fallen.

And find the grave she did.

She had been roaming around with the Vikings for a while, and had become their captain, and she finally arrived at an island that was so haunted that even her crew of ruffian pirates didn’t want to go near it. Eventually she got her way, and her crew dropped anchor and waited in the ship while she went ashore by herself.

Viking, sword, shieldmaiden
“Hervor retrieves the sword from Angantyr,” oil on canvas, by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1783-1816)

Once she had hiked to the barrow where her father had fallen, she summoned her father’s ghost, as well as the ghosts of all his brothers who had died with him.

“Hervarth, Hjörvarth, Angantýr
And Hrani, great be your torment here
If ye will not hear my words.
Give me the blade that Dvalin made;
It is ill becoming the ghostly dead
To keep such costly swords!
In your tortured ribs shall my curses bring
A maddening itch and a frenzied sting,
Till ye writhe in agonies,
As if ye were laid to your final rest
Where the ants are swarming within their nest,
And revelling in your thighs!” (translated by Nora Kershaw, 1921)

At first, Angantýr tried to deter Hervor from obtaining the sword, first telling her that someone else took it, then warning her that the fires of Hell (where the cursed blade resided) were no place for a girl.

“Return, little maiden, right hastily
To thy ship that waits on the tide.” (Kershaw, 1921)

Not surprisingly, Hervor didn’t take kindly to that kind of condescendence. Throughout their dialogue, he insists on calling attention to her sex, using the word “mær” (maiden), and it just made her dig her heels in even more.

I almost feel sorry for Angantýr; he really was just trying to protect his daughter from the perils of owning a cursed sword. He warned her that owning Tyrfing would bring ruin to her progeny and only misery to herself and those she loved.

Eventually, when Angantýr realized there was no reasoning with his daughter, he gave in to her demands, handing her the sword himself so that she did not have to enter the fires of Hell. After all, he wasn’t around to watch her grow up; the least he could do was pass along her birthright. (At least that’s how I like to see it) He warned her not to touch the poisoned edges, then told her that if she was responsible with this weapon, she would turn out okay.

After she leaving the island, she had more adventures on the sea, but always treated Tyrfing with utmost respect. Eventually, she tired of marauding the seas and settled down to marry. She ended up having two sons named Angantyr and Heidrek. Unfortunately, her children were not as responsible with the sword as she was, and Heidrek ended up killing his brother with the sword. But that is a story for another day.

Isn’t it curious that the only person who was able to wield Tyrfing without succumbing to the temptation to take it out and look at it was a woman?

This story will be featured in the album Sea Tangle: Songs from the North. The bulk of the text we are using for the newly-commissioned work by Melissa Dunphy deals with Hervor’s dialogue with her father.

Support this project! Without your help, I will not be able to make this album.

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